Tag Archives: Middle Grade

Review for Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan

cilla-lee-jenkins-future-author-extraordinaire

My Summary: Cilla Lee-Jenkins has ambitions to become a bestselling author, an achievement she is certain will ensure her family won’t forget about her in favor of her soon-to-be-born younger sister. Since you’re supposed to write what you know, she writes a book about herself and her life, including her experience as a biracial girl with a family divided by cultural differences.

Review:

This book is in sort-of-epistolary format, in the sense that what you’re reading is supposed to be the book that Cilla is writing. The narrative is addressed to the reader, so it doesn’t hesitate to break the fourth wall, if there even is a fourth wall to begin with, ha.

Cilla’s voice is very distinct and full of spunk, so it grabs you from the beginning. She’s precocious, but she’s still a kid in second grade, and the author does a great job of striking the balance between showing off Cilla’s wit and keeping her voice age-appropriate.

A substantial part of Cilla’s story is about being caught between cultures, which is something I could relate to as a fellow Asian American. For example, I was amused by her insightful and direct commentary on the cultural differences between white American and Chinese table manners, having pondered those disparities myself at various points in my life.

Cilla’s particular experiences are also affected by her background as a mixed race kid with a Chinese dad and a white mom. Some of Cilla’s anecdotes involve racist microagressions, not only against Asians but against mixed race people. Since the reader is experiencing the events through Cilla’s perspective, these microaggressions are treated in a different way than they might be in a story for older audiences, in which the character has a greater awareness of and vocabulary surrounding race to address what is happening. Given the younger narrator and audience, I feel like the framing was handled pretty well, showing that Cilla is aware of things being off or hurtful about these incidents, even if she doesn’t quite understand their root causes. In general, these microaggressions are either handled by any adult bystanders in the situation, or they are cleverly subverted through Cilla’s own innocent responses that effectively sidestep the original aim of the microaggressive questions/comments and interject something that was outside the realm of the perpetrator’s expectations.

Both sets of Cilla’s grandparents feature prominently in this story, and I loved reading about her relationships with them and her quest to bring the two sides together despite their years of avoiding one another. As someone who has never been close to my grandparents, physically or emotionally, I always appreciate seeing positive and intimate grandparent-grandchild relationships portrayed in fiction.

Along with family bonds, this book also explores friendship and socialization in a school/classroom setting. I adored Cilla’s bond with her best friend Colleen, who’s Black and wants to be an astronaut or something space-related when she grows up. Despite their vastly different dream jobs, they make a perfect pair who have each other’s backs and share in the other person’s excitement. One of the things I appreciated was that the story depicted and worked through a part of their friendship where they messed up and said the wrong thing and had to figure out how to apologize. There was great modeling of healthy and constructive approaches to relationships and communication, something that is always welcome in kidlit.

There’s another really cute friendship featured in the book, which is between Cilla and a boy in her class named Ben McGee. She starts out finding him annoying for various reasons, but eventually warms up to him and finds more common ground with him. I guess in general I enjoy reading about dynamic friendships in kidlit because they’re realistic and also a good learning/teaching tool for topics like change, conflict, and empathy.

Last thing I wanted to comment on is the lovely interior illustrations by Dana Wulfekotte, who is also Asian American. They were a wonderful complement to the story and helped bring Cilla’s personality and imagination to life.

Recommendation: This is going on my mental Favorites Shelf for middle grade alongside Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog and sequels. The target age range is a bit young for some of y’all among my blog followers, so it may not be to your taste, but if you’re a parent or teacher or librarian of elementary school age kids, this is perfect for them. 🙂

Review for The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim

crystal-ribbon

My Summary: Li Jing lives in a village that is protected by the Great Golden Huli Jing. Her name promises a great destiny but also invites mockery from other children. Because her family is poor, at the age of eleven, she is sold to be the bride and caretaker of a three-year-old boy. Her new home brings her suffering and more danger, until she decides to run away. With the help of some friends, she sets off on a quest to go back home and find herself.

Review:

After reading Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon series, I was craving more [#ownvoices] middle grade Chinese fantasy, and The Crystal Ribbon was exactly what I needed. Set in the Song Dynasty and drawing on Chinese folklore, this book brings to life a wonderful tale of resilience, family, and friendship.

The Crystal Ribbon has some Cinderella-esque elements to it. Instead of an evil stepmother and two stepsisters, she has a mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law who are nasty to her and treat her like a servant because they can. Thankfully, she’s not alone. There is a kind cook who looks after her well-being, and she meets a spider and a nightingale who help her along the way, among others. She also has a letter from her younger brother and memories of her family to hold onto.

Far from being helpless, Jing fights against the people and forces that try to beat her down. She plots and acts to escape her horrible situations and doesn’t give up despite the odds being stacked against her. Her story is one of hope and light in dark times, something I needed for my current low in life.

One of the magical things about reading this book was the familiar cultural references woven into the story. From the history, to the literary allusions, to the holiday celebrations, to the superstitions and religious/spiritual practices, I felt at home. Even some of the language used was taken directly from common Chinese sayings/idioms.

Though it’s not a horror story, there were definitely some creepy elements and scenes to this book. Jing is forced to be out at night during the Ghost Festival and witnesses the supernatural come to life. Also, a prominent part of the story are the jing (精) that Jing’s name is a homophone for. I’d loosely translate jing as fae. They are supernatural beings that can take different forms, and you never know whether they are friend or foe, for the sinister jing feed on the chi of humans. The good and powerful ones serve as protectors of villages.

I have two minor criticisms of the book. One is that the romanization wasn’t consistent throughout. In some places, ch was used instead of q. A notable example was chi, though that might simply be because chi is familiar to English-speakers. Another thing that didn’t follow consistent rules was the spacing in disyllabic names. Some had spaces between syllables and others didn’t.

My other criticism was that the prose read awkwardly in some places because it sounded like the narration (first-person from Jing’s perspective) was directed to someone who’s a cultural outsider. As a result, it came off as overly explain-y and heavy-handed with the info-dumping.

For example, the dizi, which is a transverse flute, was described as being a “Chinese transverse flute.” However, you would call it a Chinese flute and not just a flute when the default “flute” is assumed to be the Western flute. In a story where Chinese culture is the norm, there wouldn’t be a need to refer to dizi as a Chinese flute.

Another example is the references to the “lunar calendar” and “Lunar New Year.” To someone who was immersed in Chinese culture during the Song Dynasty, the calendar they used wouldn’t be referred to as a “lunar calendar,” nor would the New Year be called the Lunar New Year since the lunar calendar was the default calendar. When someone in the West says “lunar calendar,” the lunar descriptor is marking it as in opposition to the solar/Gregorian calendar, which is used as the standard calendar.

Other than those small nitpicky things though, I absolutely adored the story.

Recommendation: Lovingly recommended. Trigger warnings for extreme physical punishments/abuse.

Review for Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

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Note: My review is based on the ARC I received.

My Summary: The 8th grade is putting on Romeo and Juliet this year. Although Mattie has no prior experience with theater, she discovers that she enjoys acting. On top of practicing for this play, Mattie has to juggle a complicated web of middle school secrets and relationships, including her own budding crush on classmate Gemma, who is starring as Juliet. As obstacles pop up, Mattie is pushed to take the lead in the play and her life.

Review:

Star-Crossed really transports me back to my tween years, when things were awkward and complicated and your peers’ opinions meant everything in the world. Mattie is thrust into many an uncomfortable situation by life, and we as readers get to experience the rollercoaster of emotions she goes through as she navigates her relationships with her classmates and friends. Whether it’s figuring out how her crushes feel, keeping secrets from her best friends, being the only person not invited to a social event, or worrying about how others will react to knowing she has a crush on a girl, Mattie has to make a lot of tough decisions.

With both humor and heart, the author brings Mattie’s middle school experiences to life. The 8th grade production of Romeo and Juliet is not only a plot device but a way of enriching Mattie’s character development. As she works to understand the feelings of the characters in the play, she also makes connections to her own situation and works through her own feelings. She learns to empathize with and see a different side to a classmate she wouldn’t have otherwise gotten close to.

Though I didn’t figure out I was bi until later in my life, I could still relate a lot to Mattie’s experiences. The newness of being attracted to someone of a different gender than before, the uncertainty as to how people around me will react to finding out about you being bi, the guilt of keeping secrets from people that you want to trust, these were all familiar feelings for me.

I guess one of the most relatable aspects of Mattie’s experiences is her anxiety when interacting with her crush. I can never be completely at ease when I interact with my crushes, even when we’re good friends. The awkwardness Mattie feels is so real to me.

If there was one thing I didn’t like about the book, it was a few passages that came off as really white-centric. There were two different passages describing Mattie and Gemma and their respective levels of attractiveness that felt like they were centering white beauty standards. There was also another minor scene where Mattie wants to play the part of an immigrant in a class activity and she described immigrants in an othering way. Other than these bits, I enjoyed the book a lot.

Recommendation: Recommended for the cute and fun story and charming characters.

Review for Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

aminas-voice

Note: This review is based on the eARC I received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My Summary: Things are changing around Amina. Her best friend Soojin is getting friendly with one of the “cool” girls and preparing to change her name to something “American”-sounding. Her uncle is coming from Pakistan to visit, and she has to be the perfect daughter or risk making her parents look bad. Then there’s the Quran recitation competition she has to participate in against her wishes and the Winter Choral Concert she wants to sing in but can’t find the courage to sign up for. While Amina struggles to be true to herself, tragedy strikes and shakes her community to the core.

Review:

While this book is primarily a “window” book for me since I’m not familiar with Pakistani culture, in some ways it was also a “mirror” book because I saw pieces of myself and my experiences in not only Soojin, Amina’s Korean American friend (there are a lot of commonalities in how East Asian Americans navigate white-dominated spaces), but also Amina herself because she is a second generation child of immigrant parents.

Both Amina and Soojin experience a variety of racist microaggressions from their white peers, from food-related taunts to language-related stigmas. Prominent among these is the butchering of their names, something that I’m intimately familiar with. Soojin, who moved to the U.S. as a toddler and is about to become a citizen, plans to change her name to something that white Americans can easily pronounce. I had a period where I considered changing my name, so I empathized with her situation, though hindsight makes me glad I didn’t go through with such a change. Amina feels off about this decision because she thinks Soojin’s name is fine as it is, so she does what she can to communicate this validation to Soojin. This was very heartening to read, knowing how strong the pressure to assimilate into the white mainstream can be and how vulnerable kids like Soojin are to these pressures.

In general, the friendship between Amina and Soojin was a highlight of the story. Two Asian Americans sticking by each other is realistic and an important kind of solidarity to represent. On top of that, the story explores how friendships change over time as new people enter your friend circles. In this case, the “interloper” is a white girl named Emily, who Amina doesn’t fully trust because of her history of perpetrating of some of the microaggressions I mentioned before. The distrust is mixed with feelings of jealousy and abandonment, and those feelings are addressed in a constructive way as the story progresses.

Another positive aspect of the story is Amina’s relationships with her various family members. Her older brother has his own character arc and development as he joins the basketball team at his high school and deals with both parental pressure and peer pressure. Amina may not fully understand her brother, but she is supportive of him and stands up for him to their parents when they are being hard on him over his grades (which is something I will never get tired of seeing portrayed in fiction because seriously, grades aren’t everything).

Amina’s relationship with her parents is also a loving and supportive one. They may be somewhat strict, but they are not unfair or uncaring. To the contrary, her parents encourage her, guide her through her problems, and keep her connected to her culture, heritage, and religion.

Her relationship with her uncle who’s visiting from Pakistan is a bit more complicated but dynamic. Her uncle is more traditional and conservative than her parents, so she has doubts about him liking her since she is Americanized in many ways. He becomes her tutor for reciting and learning Arabic from the Quran, and although she feels inadequate and self-conscious at first, she eventually begins to treat him more like a genuine mentor, developing a bond with him that also brings her closer to her faith.

One of my favorite things about this book was the depictions of everyday life at Sunday school and the Islamic Center. It’s such a lovely space that’s community-oriented and celebrates Islamic history and cultures with its displays and decorations. Everyone knows everyone else, and there are annual traditions and festivals that bring people together. You can tell that Amina feels very at home there. As I was reading about it, I couldn’t help but think of the Taiwanese Community Center that my family frequents on the weekends because of the similarities in layout and the feeling of comfort and familiarity it evokes for me. Since the story builds up this atmosphere of home around the mosque and the Center, the subsequent vandalism left a deep impact on me. The trauma of loss weighed on me as if it were real, as if I were Amina witnessing the events. Thankfully, the aftermath of this dark event lifts you back up with hopeful messages.

The title of this book, Amina’s Voice, has both literal and figurative meanings. The more literal interpretation is linked to Amina’s love of music and singing. She is talented but has stage fright and struggles to sing or otherwise perform in front of an audience. The more figurative meaning is about her coming to terms with herself and her identity and being comfortable with who she is. These two themes and struggles are intertwined and resolved over the course of the story in an empowering way. The ending was perfect (in my opinion).

Recommendation: Highly recommended! A heartfelt story about friendship, family, and community.

Review for The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye

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]My Summary: Aref’s home is Oman, where his house and cat and friends are, where his beloved grandfather, Sidi, lives. He loves it there, and he does not want to leave it behind to move to Michigan, a place so foreign and far away for him. With Sidi’s help, however, he begins to see his journey in a new light.

Review:

This book wasn’t quite what I expected, but it surprised me in a good way. I think I sort of misread the blurb and thought it would chronicle the events that happened after Aref’s move, but in fact, the whole story takes place in Oman, while he’s preparing for the move to Michigan.

For the most part, this is a quiet story. There are adventures and high points, but a lot of the narrative is devoted to reflection and immersion in the rhythms of Aref’s environment. He spends some time resisting the idea of moving, but with Sidi’s guidance, he moves toward acceptance.

The relationship between Aref and his grandfather drives a lot of the story, and it’s very heartfelt. The two have a deep bond and shared interests that makes me envious because I was never close to any of my grandparents due to a combination of generational, cultural, and language gaps.

Although Aref is a third-grader, the narration doesn’t patronize him; it’s evident that he’s very bright and also curious. His love for learning and exploring is encouraged by his parents, who taught him a game called “Discover Something New Every Day,” which is their so-called family motto. Everyone in his family keeps lists of interesting discoveries, even his grandfather, though Sidi doesn’t write them down in journals. We the readers get to see some of these lists, which introduce us to everything from basic geographical facts about Oman, to the biology of turtles, to a short biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Through these lists, we get a sense of Aref’s world and perspective, the details he notices and the topics that catch his eye.

I think the beauty of this book is the theme of looking at things more closely and from different perspectives and thus learning more. For Aref and his grandfather, nothing is too insignificant to be studied or too small to be a treasure. There’s a sense that you are opening yourself up to the wonder in the world as you follow Aref’s adventures. It helps take you away from the hectic flows of modern life to appreciate everything that’s around you. More importantly, the story teaches us to be more empathetic. Although at first Aref thinks only of himself and his situation, he eventually realizes that other people, people he knows, have experienced a similar move, and that he failed to consider their feelings in the past.

I liked the symbolism of the turtle, which is familiar to most and accessible to kids. It places change and moving in a broader context and timeline while paying tribute to the value of returning to one’s roots and homeland.

I can relate to Aref’s experience because I moved twice at a young age, once after third grade and again after fourth, both times from one state in the U.S. to another, the second time it was about 1500 miles (~2400 km) between the two houses. It was hard leaving behind everything that was familiar because I had taken so much of it for granted and couldn’t imagine adapting to a new environment. Reading this book transported me back to my own moving experiences.

Recommendation: Recommended for those in search of a heartwarming tale about saying goodbye to all that is familiar.

Review for The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami

the-grand-plan-to-fix-everything

My Summary: Dini and her best friend Maddie are major Bollywood fans. Unfortunately, Dini’s plans to attend a Bollywood dance camp with Maddie during the summer are shattered when her parents announce that their family is moving to India–and not even to Bombay, the hub of Bollywood, but a small town named Swapnagiri. Just when Dini has given up hope of seeing her favorite Bollywood star, Dolly Singh, life takes a turn for the unexpected…

Review:

This book was super fun to read. Dini (short for “Nandini”) was an engaging character. Her passion and determination brought a sense of liveliness to the story. Moving such a huge distance to another country is a stressful situation for anyone, but she tries to make the best of it, long-distance communication with a massive time zone difference and all. Her enthusiasm in scheming and executing her plans gets her into a bit of trouble, but ultimately her well-intentioned meddling produces positive results.

Not only does the book tell the story of Dini, it also tells the tale of multiple supporting characters. From the mailman to the baker to the school principal to the van driver, everyone has their own story to be told, their own problems to deal with. Through the perspectives of these different side characters, the book paints a picture of daily life in small town India and shows the mysterious and serendipitous ways in which seemingly separate lives intersect.

The book is part mystery, part adventure, and part Bollywood-esque drama. All of the different threads of the characters and subplots eventually converge and get resolved in a heartfelt happy ending. It’s definitely a feel-good, fairy tale-esque book, but heaven knows we need more of these kinds of books to offset the negativity of the political climate and give us hope for a brighter future.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are letters to and from characters (rendered in different fonts for different characters), excerpts from Dini’s favorite magazine that supplies the latest buzz on Bollywood and her favorite [fictional] star Dolly Singh, and charming illustrations by illustrator Abigail Halpin. These touches add texture to the story and variety to the reading experience.

As it turns out, there’s a sequel to this book, The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic, so I’m looking forward to reading that soon.

Recommendation: Recommended for young readers and adult readers wishing to indulge their inner child.

Review for Stir It Up! by Ramin Ganeshram

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My Summary: Anjali loves cooking and dreams of having her own cooking reality TV show. However, her parents want “better” things for her, like getting into the elite Stuyvesant High School and working at a job that’s nothing like their humble family restaurant. When she’s accepted to a contest on the Food Network, she knows her father won’t approve, but she has plans of her own.

Review:

I love food, so the premise of this book drew my attention. A biracial, Afro-Indian Trinidadian girl from Richmond Hill, Queens, who wants to star in a Food Network show? Great. Unfortunately, I found the execution a bit lacking.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book. It had good elements: the centering of immigrants and POC in a story about Queens, the lovable grandmother character, the best friend who’s also a POC, the racially diverse supporting characters/show contestants, the commentary on the policing of race for people whose families have immigrated more than once, the incorporation of Indo-Caribbean food culture, and the lovely recipes that are sandwiched between chapters.

What was missing for me was substance. The writing felt too spare in many places. For readers who aren’t familiar with the ingredients and dishes mentioned in the story, it’s hard to imagine what they look like. The descriptions focused on lists of ingredients and how the dishes were prepared without much elaboration on the visual spectacle of the finished product.

And for a book that’s supposed to be about food, we get surprisingly few descriptions of smell or taste: aroma, texture, flavor, etc. Anjali spends an entire chapter at a cooking class but the actual consumption of the delicious food that’s made is crammed into a single paragraph with no details provided. Kind of anticlimactic, in my opinion. In short, I was hoping for a book that engaged my senses more.

On top of that, the plot felt a little too rushed without much downtime. There were 166 pages total, and 37 of those were recipe inserts, meaning all of the actual narrative was squeezed into about 130 pages, which is short even for a middle grade book. I wanted more build-up to and more elaboration during the contest scenes. That would have increased the emotional impact and overall weight of the story. I guess to put it another way, it felt like I was eating simple sugars when what I wanted was complex carbs. Wasn’t filling enough, I was still hungry when I was done.

Recommendation: Not sure what to say except maybe I’m not the right audience for this book? I think younger readers might be more forgiving.

My 17 Most Anticipated MG Releases of 2017

Follow-up to My 25 Most Anticipated YA Releases of 2017 post. I love middle grade fiction and want to give it some love. ^_^

So the first book on this list is already out but I don’t have it yet, so I’m still anticipating it. ;D

Midnight Without a Moon by Linda W. Jackson (Jan. 3rd)

  • #ownvoices
  • Black MC
  • Historical fiction
  • Related to Emmett Till murder case

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres (Jan. 17th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Mexican American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Food, family, and friendship

The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim (Jan. 31st)

  • #ownvoices
  • Chinese MC
  • Historical fantasy
  • Intelligent animal friends

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (Mar. 14th)

  • #ownvoices (for one MC)
  • Filipinx American MC (#ownvoices), Japanese American MC, d/Deaf MC
  • Contemporary
  • Friendship story

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan (Mar. 14th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Muslim Pakistani American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Tackles issues of identity and Islamophobia

Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan (Mar. 28th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Biracial white/Chinese American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Multicultural family story

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi (Mar. 28th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Bangladeshi American Hijabi MC
  • Fantasy, Steampunk
  • Puzzles and games

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar (April 11th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Jewish Cuban American MC
  • Immigrant story

The Emperor’s Riddle by Kat Zhang (May 2nd)

  • #ownvoices
  • Chinese American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Mystery and adventure story

One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson (June 6th)

  • Black MC by a Black author
  • Senegalese MC
  • Contemporary
  • Magical realism

Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence (July 11th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Japanese American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Family and food traditions

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh (July 25th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Biracial white/Korean American MC
  • Fantasy
  • Ghost story

Akata Warrior (Sequel to Akata Witch) by Nnedi Okorafor (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Nigerian American MC
  • Fantasy
  • Nigerian/West African magic

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Cuban American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Tackles issue of gentrification in Miami

Love Sugar Magic by Anna Meriano (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Mexican American MC
  • Magical realism
  • Family of brujas (witches)

Weaving a Net is Better than Praying for Fish by Ki-Wing Merlin (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Chinese American MC
  • 1st generation immigrant
  • Mystery/suspense

Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Chinese/Taiwanese(?) American MC
  • Fantasy
  • Sport that combines martial arts with ice skating

Review for Ticket to India by N.H. Senzai

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My Summary: Maya flies from the U.S. to Pakistan to attend the funeral for her grandfather. There, she finds out that her family has roots in India through her grandmother, who moved to Pakistan after Partition. In order to complete her grandfather’s final rites, her grandmother wishes to seek out an old family heirloom that was left behind in India. Maya sets off for India with her grandmother and older sister to hunt for this family treasure in a race against time, but unexpected complications result in her tackling the search completely on her own.

My Review:

N.H. Senzai became one of my favorite middle grade writers last year after I read Shooting Kabul and Saving Kabul Corner. Having written two books that focused on her husband’s Afghan American heritage, she decided to write one based on her own as an Indian and Pakistani American.

Ticket to India is many things at once. It’s a whirlwind tour of India (both the beautiful and the ugly), brought to life through vivid descriptions. The story cleverly incorporates landmarks into the plot: Maya’s grandmother  uses them to remember the location of her old home and the location of the family treasure. The perspective through which we see these landmarks is different from that of a regular tourist, however, because even as these sights are new to Maya, they are also in a way familiar to her, echoing the landscape of Pakistan.

Other facts are included in the story through the use of epistolary format. Part of the story is excerpts from Maya’s journal for a school assignment. Since she is writing with her teacher as an audience, she lists various facts about Pakistan and India, among other things, thus supplying some of the background for the story. It takes the place of an unnecessary info-dump in the middle of action or dialogue.

Although some neutral facts are stated, the book doesn’t shy away from critiques of British imperialism in the past and rampant political corruption and religious conflict in the present. These views are communicated through Maya’s interactions with various adults as well as her observations of various situations.

Aside from being informative, the book is also a suspenseful adventure. Maya faces many obstacles and setbacks as she makes her way across India. She meets both people who show her kindness and help her and people who have malicious intentions. She also meets people with good intentions who still make her journey difficult because they have their own ideas of where she should go. I was on the edge of my seat wondering whether she’d make it out of trouble spots in one piece and ultimately succeed in her quest.

The book is also about sibling relationships. Maya’s older sister tends to outshine and overshadow her. She’s more assertive and kind of a know-it-all. However, their unintended separation gives Maya a chance to come into herself and develop a sense of independence.

Like Shooting Kabul, Ticket to India tackles complex political issues, this time concerning the Partition of the Indian subcontinent and its continuing aftereffects. Aside from Maya and Zahra’s sisterhood, there is also the “sibling relationship” between India and Pakistan. They share many things, including a common history up until Partition. However, there is also conflict as only siblings can wage against one another, intimate and painful.

The author takes a hopeful and optimistic approach to the question of the two countries’ futures. The similarities between India and Pakistan are emphasized over the differences. Moreover, by making Maya the viewpoint character, she breaks down the idea of India and Pakistan as being in binary opposition to one another. Like the author herself, Maya is both Pakistani and Indian, not just one or the other, and the conflict is not a zero-sum game.

Recommendation: Highly recommended. This book is both entertaining and thought-provoking, a great middle grade cross-country adventure!

Review for The Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia

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My Summary: Aliya has a lot of problems typical for a fifth grader: she wants to fit in, she worries about being popular enough for student council, and she has a crush on a cute boy who will probably never notice her, and she’s loaded with homework assignments that she’s not too excited about completing. Unfortunately, on top of that, she faces Islamophobia from people around her, even though she’s not even very strict about observing certain Islamic traditions. Then, a new girl, Marwa, arrives. She’s Moroccan and wears the hijab, which makes her a prime target for bullying. Aliya can choose to avoid association with her, or maybe Marwa has something to teach her about being true to oneself.

Review:

Even within diversity, there is diversity. Although the majority of Indians are Hindu, there are many who are Muslims. I think this is the first book about an Indian Muslim American that I’ve read, and I’m glad I found it because it covers a lot of issues in an way that’s accessible to kids.

Aliya’s family is Indian and Muslim. They speak Urdu at home, and she knows a bit of Arabic for the common prayers and greetings. However, the women in her family don’t wear the hijab, eating halal food isn’t a huge priority for the family, and Aliya hasn’t observed the fast for Ramadan with much success. Throughout the course of the book, she starts to see her faith in a new light and make commitments to observing certain practices.

Aliya is a flawed but still sympathetic protagonist. She wants to do the right thing but feels inhibited by fear and social pressure and doesn’t always know how to respond to difficult situations. Thankfully, she is not alone in her struggles; she has Muslim friends from Sunday School at the local Islamic Center to commiserate over hate incidents and regular tween issues, and her parents, grandmother, and great-grandmother are there to support her as well, offering their wisdom and advice to guide her toward growth.

Unfortunately, due to a bunch of teasing and bullying from kids as school, directed toward Marwa or toward Aliya, she internalizes some of the negative and xenophobic perceptions about people like herself.

It takes two different school projects and then some for Aliya to come to terms with her faith. One is for her Sunday School and takes the form of a series of letters she writes to Allah with the intent of bettering herself. The other is a project for regular school where she works with her best friend Winnie on a display board to showcase their respective cultures and religions.

This book is a celebration of diversity in two ways. One is Aliya’s best friend Winnie, who is biracial Jewish Korean American. Like Aliya, she faces microaggressions from people, even from Aliya’s own grandmother (Aliya tries to correct her), so even though she’s not the main protagonist, her experiences are represented on the page.

The other way is in its portrayal of the differences in how various families and individuals interpret and practice Islam. Marwa wears the hijab with confidence, Aliya’s mother does not and believes it is not necessary to cover up to be modest. One or two of Aliya’s friends from Sunday School wear the hijab, with varying degrees of confidence because of the Islamophobic attacks that happen so frequently to girls who wear it. More importantly, they’re shown as having agency in doing so; it’s a personal choice that they make for themselves.

Aliya’s personal and religious/spiritual journey were a pleasure to follow along with. The book alternates between a typical first-person narration and an epistolary format for Aliya’s letters to Allah. Those letters bring the reader into the intimate relationship she has with Allah, and the change she undergoes is apparent from the progression from mere complaints about what is happening to conscientious self-reflection and constructive action. She may not know all the answers at the end, but she has greater confidence, self-discipline, and wisdom to navigate her future.

The major themes in this book were interesting to me because they approach adversity and Islamophobia/prejudice from a gentler angle than, say, Does My Head Look Big in This?, which has a very different tone, overall. However, the “quieter” methods of dealing with bigotry are not necessarily less powerful or effective.

My one criticism was an instance of ableist language. Aliya nicknames her finnicky and crotchety great-aunt Choti Dahdi “OCD,” which stands for “Old Choti Dahdi.” Her great-aunt isn’t a two-dimensional character defined purely by her neuroticism, but the nickname was an insensitive one.

Recommendation: It’s a great book for young readers that teaches empathy, resilience, and integrity.